Judaism and Science A Forum on Fact, Fiction and Faith 2015-12-20T17:10:43Z http://www.judaismandscience.com/feed/atom/ Rabbi Allen S. Maller <![CDATA[Math Proves Atheism and Materialistic Determinism are Unprovable Beliefs]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=649 2015-12-20T17:10:43Z 2015-12-20T17:10:43Z A mathematical problem underlying fundamental questions in particle and quantum physics is provably unsolvable, according to an online report on phys.org December 9, 2015. It is the first major problem in physics for which such a fundamental limitation could be proven. The findings are important because they show that even a perfect and complete description of the microscopic properties of a material is not enough to predict its macroscopic behavior.

A small spectral gap the energy needed to transfer an electron from a low­ energy state to an excited state ­ is the central property of semiconductors. In a similar way, the spectral gap plays an important role for many other materials. When this energy becomes very small, i.e., the spectral gap closes, it becomes possible for the material to make a phase transition to a completely different state. An example of this is when a material becomes superconducting.

Mathematically extrapolating from a microscopic description of a material to the bulk solid is considered one of the key tools in the search for materials exhibiting superconductivity at ambient temperatures or other desirable properties. A study, published (12/9/15) in Nature, however, shows crucial limits to this approach. Using sophisticated mathematics, the authors proved that, even with a complete microscopic description of a quantum material, determining whether it has a spectral gap is, in fact, an undecidable question.

Godel and Turing are famous for proving that some mathematical questions are `undecidable’ ­ they are neither true nor false, because they are beyond the reach of mathematics. The new research shows that the spectral gap problem in quantum physics is one of these undecidable problems. This means a mathematical method to determine whether matter described by quantum mechanics has a spectral gap or not cannot exist; thus limiting the extent to which we can exactly predict the behavior of quantum materials, and potentially even of fundamental particle physics.

Particle physics experiments at CERN, and numerical calculations on supercomputers suggest that there is a spectral gap. “We knew about the possibility of problems that are undecidable in principle since the works of Turing and Gödel in the 1930s,” added co-­author Professor Michael Wolf from Technical University of Munich. “So far, however, this only concerned the very abstract corners of theoretical computer science and mathematical logic”.

   “No one had seriously contemplated this as a possibility right in the heart of theoretical physics before. But our results change this picture. From a more philosophical perspective, they also challenge the reductionists’ point of view, as the insurmountable difficulty lies precisely in the derivation of macroscopic properties from a microscopic description.”

Co­-author, Professor David Pérez­García from Universidad Complutense de Madrid and ICMAT, said: “It’s not all bad news, though. Our results show that adding even a single particle to a lump of matter, however large, could in principle dramatically change its properties.” This statement is the physics equivalent of the ‘butterfly effect’ in chaos theory; and religious beliefs in the rationally unprovable existence of human and Divine free will.

At the most fundamental level: Atheism, Theism, Determinism and Free Will are all scientifically unprovable beliefs. You pay your life; and make your choice how to live it.


Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.  Earlier versions of this article may have appeared elsewhere.

The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller <![CDATA[Paleoanthropology in Genesis]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=644 2015-12-01T23:09:43Z 2015-12-01T23:09:43Z According to the Bible, God commanded Homo Sapiens to “fill up planet Earth” (Gen. 1:28), and as a species we have most certainly done that. But what motivated prehistoric mankind to spread out throughout the entire world, in the evolutionary rapid time of less than 60-80,000 years?  

Homo Erectus originated somewhere in East Africa almost two million years ago, and then slowly spread out to inhabit South Africa, the southern parts of Europe (Spain and Italy), the Caucasus, India, China, and Indonesia over the next million years. Homo Sapiens reached Indonesia and Australia within 40-50,000 years of its exodus from Africa. New research by a paleoanthropologist at the University of York suggests that moral and emotional reasons, especially betrayals of personal and communal trust, are the best way to understanding the rapid spread of our own species around the world. 

Dr. Penny Spikins says that the speed and character of human dispersals changed significantly about 80-100,000 years ago. Before then, movements of pre-Homo Sapiens species were slow and largely due to environmental events, population increases or ecological changes. Then, relatively quickly, human populations spread with remarkable speed and across major environmental barriers.

Dr. Spikins relates this change to changes in human moral, spiritual, and emotional relationships. In research published in Open Quaternary (PHYS.org November 24, 2015), she says that neither population increases nor ecological changes provide an adequate explanation for patterns of human movement into new regions which began around 80-100,000 years ago.

Spikins suggests that as social and personal commitments to others became more essential to group survival, human groups became more motivated to identify and punish those individuals who cheat. Moral disputes motivated by broken trust and/or a sense of betrayal became more frequent and motivated early humans to put distance between themselves and their rivals.

The religious and emotional bonds which held populations together in crisis, had a darker side in heartfelt reactions to betrayal which we still feel today. Larger social networks made it easier to find distant allies with whom to start new colonies, and more efficient hunting technology meant that anyone with a grudge and a weapon was a danger, but it was human values and emotions which provided a force of repulsion from existing occupied areas, which we do not see in other animals.

The expansion of Homo Erectus out of Africa into Asia around 1.8 million years ago appears to have been caused by the need to find more large scale grasslands. After 80-100,000 years ago, however, dispersal into distant, risky and inhospitable areas became relatively more common compared with movements into already occupied regions. Human populations moved into very cold regions of Northern Europe, crossed significant river deltas such as the Indus and the Ganges, deserts, tundra and jungle environments and even made significant sea crossings to reach Australia.

In other words, God’s commandment to “fill up planet Earth” is followed by Eve and Adam’s decision to internalize (eat) the fruit the morality tree, and gain knowledge of good and evil. This leads to moral or religious conflicts that often provoke substantial mobility—the furious ex ally, mate or whole group, intent on seeking revenge or justice, are a strong motivation to run away, and to take almost any risk to do so.

While religion is a powerful force binding people together, it also can be a strong force that gives courage and hope to small groups of dissenters, who abandon their birth community and go forth to a strange far away land, as was the case with Abraham and Sarah: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household, to the land I will show you, and I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will become a blessing.’” (Gen. 12:1-2.)

For more information: “The geography of trust and betrayal: moral disputes and Late Pleistocene dispersal,” Open Quaternary, doi.org/10.5334/oq.ai.


Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.  Earlier versions of this article may have appeared elsewhere.

The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.

Roger Price <![CDATA[In the Beginning and In the End]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=638 2015-10-15T19:06:26Z 2015-10-15T19:06:26Z When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.

At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.

Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good.

Between 380,000 and 400,000 years after creation, the temperature in the considerably expanded and expanding universe dropped to less than 3000 degrees Kelvin. Electrons now orbited the existing nuclei. Atoms formed. The universe was now transparent to visible light, but in the absence of stars still dark. This was still good.

A second stage in the life of the cosmos now began. In this interstellar stage, light elements, primarily hydrogen and helium gasses, begin to coalesce to form galaxies filled with stars. Over time, long periods of time, some stars died and in the process sent forth heavier elements created in their core. As that process repeated and repeated, the universe became seeded with heavier elements. This was very good.

One of the earliest galaxies to form was one now known as the Milky Way. Billions of years later, this galaxy assumed a spiral shape. On one of the outer arms of this spiral galaxy, light gasses gravitated together and then ignited to become a conventional yellow star called the Sun. Heavier stellar dust surrounding the Sun accreted into various objects, some large enough to be called planets. The third planet in orbit around the Sun is known as Earth. Due largely to its distance from the Sun, the temperature of Earth relatively soon came to allow for liquid water and a protective atmosphere. This was very, very good.

Shortly after conditions permitted, simple life emerged on Earth. Just as we do not know what initiated the explosive growth in the original small, hot and dense universe, we do not know exactly what forces changed inorganic chemical compounds into self-replicating lifeforms. All that we know is that the change was very, very good.

Life evolved over time, all kinds of life, slowly at first and then profoundly. Subsequent natural disasters caused mass extinctions of many lifeforms, but those situations also allowed others to flourish. Following the impact of an asteroid or comet on Earth about 65 million years ago, non-avian dinosaurs died, but small mammals now had an opportunity to multiply in number and evolve in form. And they did, ultimately generating a species of primates who could stand erect and wonder and think and speak and proclaim that all that had come before was very, very, very good.

Jewish tradition literally begins with the Beginning. The Judahites and Israelites and their ancestors who first began to contemplate the Beginning and their beginnings had no inkling either about the reality of the origin of the cosmos, or of the nature and duration of its development. But then, how could they have known what actually happened? Science as we understand it did not exist when the authors of the Torah stories put quill to scroll.

And, equally important, the purpose of those authors was not to observe, describe and test natural phenomena. Rather they were interested in the preservation and development of a particular people in a particular place during a particular period of time. Their collected story was not so much about fact, as it concerned faith and future. They were focused, to use the phrase of the Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz, on “one God, one Law, one people, one land.”

Consequently, they chose to begin their national saga both by demythologizing the then current creation stories extant in the ancient Near East and asserting, though not consistently or in philosophical terms, the idea that there was and ought to be order in the universe, an order established by a single, powerful god. They wrote of a deity who not only operated in history, but who initiated history through a series of acts of creation, differentiation, separation and identification. (See Gen. 1:1-31.) With key elements of the universe both established and ordered, their tale of the development of humanity generally and the destiny of a particular family, nation and people could now unfold.

Still, while the creation story in Genesis is mythic (i.e., a traditional story that explains) and not scientific (i.e., not analytic and predictive), it is a powerful myth. It is one of the two interventions in history, along with the exodus story, that are invoked frequently as evidence of God’s powers and achievement. Biblical prophets like Isaiah (at, e.g., 40:12, 42:5) and psalmists (at, e.g., 8:2-4, 19:2, 102:26 and 121:1-2) maintained and embellished the theme of the creator God. That theme later became incorporated in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, as part of prayers like the Sabbath Kiddush recited over a cup of wine, the evening prayer Maariv Aravim, the Sabbath morning Psukei D’zimrah (verses of praise) and the traditional closing prayers, Aleinu and Kaddish Yatom (the Mourner’s Kaddish).

Discoveries in science over the last few centuries, and especially in the last few generations, have challenged the literal Genesis text. For some, the biblical story nevertheless remains the accurate report of events which took placed some 5776 years ago, and they have rejected modern science. For others, the story retains vitality and they have strained to reconcile the ancient words with contemporary knowledge. For still others, though, people who embrace modern science without reservation, the biblical myth serves as the basis for what some call creation or process theology or evolution theology or eco-theology. These approaches seek to integrate newly revealed science with certain philosophical or theological perspectives. They incorporate the facts that we are all stardust, all related members of the same evolutionary tree of life. And they assert that we are bound by our connection to the Earth to preserve and protect it. Contemporary Jewish thought demonstrates that the biblical creation story still resonates.

Yet, if for over two and a half millennia Jewish thought has engaged energetically and enthusiastically with the beginning of time, it has been less concerned about confronting the end of time. To understand just how limited Jewish thought is regarding the end of time, it will be helpful to understand what modern science teaches about our future, and that of our planet, our solar system, our galaxy and the universe itself.

Putting aside the possibility of worldwide death by disease and the perhaps greater possibility of global demise due to thermonuclear war (the Doomsday Clock now sitting at only three minutes to midnight), history evidences no less than five mass extinctions of life in the last four hundred and fifty million years. The last of these extinctions occurred about 65,000,000 years ago when, as noted above, an extraterrestrial object hit Earth. The force of the blow, on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, was perhaps a billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in World War II. The impact crater it created, known as the Chicxulub Crater, is about 110 miles in diameter. While our shrew like ancestors survived, and we ultimately evolved, there can be no guarantee that we would survive the next such event. After all, Chicxulub may not even be the biggest impact crater on Earth.

Moreover, even assuming that we avoid disease, war and asteroids, human life on Earth, indeed Earth itself, is still doomed. Our Sun is about halfway through its own lifecycle. By most estimates, it has only another five billion years, give or take, to live. During that time, it will consume all of its hydrogen, collapse, begin to fuse helium, and then expand into an immense red giant star. As the solar death process unfolds, the Sun will expand first to reach Mercury’s orbit, then that of Venus and finally Earth’s. The atmosphere will dissipate, the seas will evaporate and Earth may well spiral into the enlarged Sun and vaporize. Ultimately, the Sun itself will collapse into a white dwarf with a carbon core.

Perhaps humankind will have left Earth by then and established bases on more distant planets or their moons or even in other star systems in the Milky Way. Yet that may not be enough to save our species. Our spiral galaxy is on a collision course with our nearest and much larger galactic neighbor, Andromeda. Andromeda is presently about 2.5 million light years away from us. That equates to over seventeen trillion miles, a goodly distance. But we are approaching each other at about a quarter of a million miles per hour. So, in about four to five billion years the two star systems will collide. According to Harvard astronomy professor and theoretical cosmologist Avi Loeb, the result will be a new spheroidal shaped galaxy (3/12). Of course, by then, as we have seen, our birth planet and our Sun will be dying and taking Earth with it. Will the new worlds on which we have landed survive the twists and turns of intergalactic gravitational forces?

But wait! If an intergalactic collision is much too much to contemplate, there may be less, much less, in our longer term future. In recent years, science has come to understand what the late, great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, with no earned academic degrees, knew all along (though he may not have been the first to say so). “The future,” Yogi once said, “ain’t what it used to be.”

Edwin Hubble’s discovery in 1929 that galaxies in general were moving apart from each other was astonishing enough. It indicated that our universe, space itself, was expanding. Less than twenty years ago, in 1998, astrophysicists determined that the rate of expansion is not steady as once supposed, but is in fact accelerating due to a repulsive force of gravity called dark energy. Because dark energy is not well understood, there is no consensus as to what the future holds for our home universe, but of many possible scenarios three (each with variations) are most discussed. They are often called the Big Crunch, the Big Rip and the Big Freeze.

In the Big Crunch, at some point trillions of years in the future, perhaps because dark energy is less pervasive than thought or ceases to be as powerful as thought, gravity overcomes the expansion of the universe, a process of universal collapse and consolidation ensues, all that is rushes back ultimately to a hot, dense state similar to that from which the universe emerged.

In the Big Rip, the expansion of space proceeds to the point where first galaxies, then stars and planets and ultimately the atoms of elements themselves cannot hold together. They simply rip apart, leaving a vast expanding universe of drifting subatomic particles. One estimate is that this scenario could unfold over a period running from about 22 billion to 62 billion years from now.

In the Big Freeze, the universe continues to expand, but not sufficiently fast to cause cosmic suicide. As galaxies become more and more separated from each other, and stars within galaxies do as well, our descendants, if any, will lose the ability to see them and the evening sky will become darker and darker. As the universe gets larger, its temperature will approach absolute zero. Existing stars ultimately will die and no more will be born. The universe will suffer from heat death and become an infinitely large area of dark husks and waste.

Of course, much of this is speculative. And there are variations on these themes as well as other scenarios. For instance, some believe that the Big Crunch could lead to a Big Bounce and renewed life for the universe. Others talk about a Big Change or a Big Slurp, where a bubble in our universe or from another universe suddenly appears and annihilates our universe. That said, and with all possible caveats, the Big Freeze scenario appears, for now, to be the most probable of all futures.

Needless to say, the authors of the Torah knew nothing about an expanding universe, or dark energy, or Big Crunches, Rips or Freezes. If they ever conceived of the evolution and ultimate fate of their universe at all, they said nothing. For them, as it is most of the time for most of us, all concerns, like all politics, were local.

Similarly, Biblical prophets and poets, and later Talmudic and medieval sages, were no more informed about modern astrophysics as it applies to the future and ultimate death of the universe than they were to the physics that applied to the origin of the universe or the biochemistry involved in the evolution of life. But they did speak on occasion about acharit hayamim, meaning the end of days or the days to come, an unspecified time in the distant future. Even as they did, though, they created no complete narrative analogous to the creation stories, nothing that described the end of life on our home planet, much less the death of the universe as we know it.

When the days to come were envisioned in the book of Isaiah, they were seen as an idyllic time when the house of the God of Israel would be established on the highest mountain, God’s word would go forth from Jerusalem, and none but the God of Israel would be worshipped. (Is. 2:2, 3, 17.) At that time, the many nations of the world would beat their swords into pruning hooks and forego war (Is. 2:4), and the wolf would dwell with the lamb, just as the leopard would lie down with the kid (Is. 11:6). Similarly, on that day, the dispersed people of Israel would return from Assyria, Egypt and other lands, and Judah and Israel would be reunited. (Is. 11:11-13.) The reunited community would be rewarded with everlasting joy and gladness (Is. 51:11), with the smallest becoming a mighty clan, and the least, a mighty nation (Is. 60:22).

Invoking the metaphors of dried bones and sticks, Ezekiel, too, foresaw the reunification of Judah and Ephraim, never again to be divided. (Ezek. 36:24, 37:1-23.) Given a new heart and new spirit, the people would be cleansed and their land would once again become like the Garden of Eden, with abundant fields, but now populated and fortified. (Ezek. 36:24-27; 36:30-35.) In Zechariah’s words, when the dispersed returned home, the squares of Jerusalem would be filled with old men and women with their staffs in hand, and crowded with young boys and girls playing. (Zech. 8:4-5.)

While the exile of Judahites to Babylon did end, and a Second Temple was constructed, ultimately that period ended in destruction and dispersal as well. Not only had the prophesied time of peace and prosperity neither come nor been sustained, the rabbis in the Talmudic period (c. 50 – c. 500 CE) were faced with communal concerns quite different than those confronting the ancient prophets. They continued to discuss and elaborate on a hypothetical end of days, which they extrapolated into a Messianic Age, one which would be presided over by the anointed one, the Mashiach or Messiah, and come, by some interpretation, no later than 6000 years after creation, a view maintained by some today. By a traditional count, the birthday of the world is dated to Rosh HaShanah in 3761 BCE, meaning that the Messianic Age would arrive no later than Rosh HaShanah in the year 2239 CE. The rabbis were giving themselves and the Messiah plenty of slack.

But as the great medieval scholar Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam or Maimonides, observed, whenever the Messianic Age might commence, even while there would be greater peace and more wisdom, there would also still be rich and poor, strong and weak. The essence of the Messianic Age for the Rambam (at 19-20/38) was that Jews would return to the land of Israel and regain their independence. Life would go on. Even as some imagined horrific battles or other conditions that would presage the Messianic Age, there was no narrative about mass destruction during the Messianic Age itself. The whole point was the reconstitution of a united Jewish People in their ancestral homeland, free to build their society in peace.

How could it be otherwise? After all, if it were foreseen that the entirety of what is, including life itself, would someday cease to be, and cease irrespective of the scope of adherence to a particular set of commandments, laws and instructions, how would rabbis of that time have explained the purpose of the original creation? What would such an anticipated end say of the Creator of the Beginning? Or of God’s later promise to Noah, his descendants and all living creatures, symbolized by the rainbow, to never again destroy the world? (See Gen. 9:8-17.)

Of course, the same questions can be asked of rabbis today and they have less of an excuse of ignorance. At the same time, perhaps the Messianic Age is too important a topic to be left to theologians. Perhaps it is for poets to provide the compelling lesson, as Danny Siegel does here:

If you always assume that the man sitting next to you is the Messiah,

Waiting for some simple human kindness,

You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.

And if he so chooses not to reveal himself in your time,

It will not matter.


Roger Price <![CDATA[Exploring Prayer: A Conversation with Alden Solovy]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=625 2015-07-28T15:11:17Z 2015-07-28T15:11:17Z Alden Solovy is a poet and liturgist. A native of Chicago, Illinois, Alden made aliyah to Israel in 2012. His first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, was published in 2012 by Kavanot Press. He is currently working on a mythical journey, told with prayers and poetry, called Song of the Spiritual Traveler, as well as two new anthologies. This year Alden will also be the Liturgist-In-Residence for the National Havurah Committee’s 2015 Summer Institute. His prayers and additional biographical information are available at www.tobendlight.com

This conversation was conducted electronically and is offered as part of this forum’s mission to explore issues of fact, fiction and faith. We appreciate Alden’s willingness to participate.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

JudSciGuy: How did Alden Solovy, who holds an M.B.A. degree in economics and finance from the University of Chicago, get involved in writing prayers?

Alden: Composing prayers was a natural expression of my yearning to move closer to God. In response to various life tragedies I began a spiritual journey of prayer, meditation, daily journaling and writing gratitude lists. The writing evolved into a practice of composing prayers. The practice was a large part of my healing process from those tragedies, including the loss Ami z”l – my wife of 27 years – from catastrophic brain damage, which I discuss in detail in my first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing.

JSG: So, Milton Friedman played no role in your prayer development?

A: Milton Friedman? No. I also have an M.A. in journalism and a B.A. in English composition. Of course, all of my education, formal and informal, has had an influence on how I see the world.

JSG: Alden, in your experience, why do people pray?

A: Before we can ask why people pray, we need to begin to unpack a different question: “What is prayer?” Let me attempt a definition.

Prayer is an intentioned communication with God. We can do an entire interview right here. What do we mean by intentioned? Communication? God? Using this definition, your question becomes: “Why do people attempt to communicate with God?” People pray as an answer to their yearnings. People pray because of their desire for a connection with holiness, the divine, with their inner voice. We pray when we’re overwhelmed with joy, fear, sorrow or loss. We pray to celebrate. We pray to create a connection with beauty, hope, joy or love. We pray to express our inner selves. Prayer is the expression of an intention to be in relationship with God.

Now let’s change the definition and see what happens. Prayer is the fulfillment of an obligation to God. Suddenly, the whole texture changes. Prayer is a formula of words and acts, prescribed by God’s emissaries, written by God’s appointed, which fulfills a sacred duty. Using this definition, the question becomes: “Why do people want to fulfill their obligations to God?” Prayer is an expression of a desire to do God’s will.

What do these two completely different answers have in common? Faith. Faith that our prayers matter. Faith that our prayers will be heard. Faith that prayer might make a difference in the world. Faith that prayer has the power to heal. Faith that prayer is a divinely-inspired act. In my experience, there are as many reasons to pray as there are people praying. Faith unifies them all.

These definitions focus on verbal prayer. Many people would say that their prayer life centers on actions rather than words: yoga, meditation, journaling. Others would say that they pray by being in nature: gardening, birding, astronomy or hiking, for example. Others would say their philanthropy or volunteer works are acts of prayer. We engage in these formal and not-so-formal acts of prayer in order to draw ourselves closer to God, to listen for God’s voice or to express our yearnings with our deeds.

JSG: Your answer raises the issue of the definition of God. How do you define the object of your communication, the entity with which or with whom you seek a relationship?

A:   No words can adequately describe God. For me, ‘source’ is a powerful way to understand God, both in the sense of original source, the ‘creator,’ as well as the ongoing source, the ‘sustainer.’ Add to that the ideas – reflected in our classic liturgy – of infinite, one, without bodily form or substance, holy, whose existence is beyond time. Each addition, of course, adds a potential new set of conversations.

We commonly employ contrasting images of God in our attempt to describe God. For example: One metaphor is God somewhere beyond the gates of heaven. God is distant and remote. Yet, we also conceive of God as right here, right now, the ‘still small voice,’ so close, so near and present, that God’s voice is actually inside of each of us. Both describe ways we experience God.

Defining ‘God’ is often an attempt to apprehend an understanding with intellectual faculties. Seeking to define God is not nearly as powerful as seeking to experience God. The desire to experience God is an attempt to apprehend God with spiritual faculties. That’s a matter of trust in the validity and truth of spiritual experience, no matter how remote God may seem. It’s a matter of faith that the still small voice of God, present in each of us, can be heard.

JSG: Do you pray often?

A: As soon as I wake up I say an off-the-cuff prayer, sometimes a few, as well as the traditional ‘modeh ani.’ I also pray formally, with a prayer book, once each day. I put on tefillin and say the Sh’ma. Several times each day I pause, sometimes just to thank God for a beautiful moment, sometimes to say the classic Jewish ‘asher yatzar’ prayer, sometimes to pray for healing for specific people I know who are ill. I continue to regularly journal, write a gratitude list and meditate.

JSG: Do you pray using the prayers that you have written?

A: I use handful of favorites in my personal prayers each day. I also use my prayers focused on Jewish holy days and seasons, such as daily prayers during the counting of the Omer and the Passover prayers found in my second book Hagaddah Companion: Meditations and Readings. When I have a scholar-in-residency, several of my Shabbat prayers are typically incorporated into the Friday night service.

JSG: What do you find lacking in traditional prayer language?

A: Some of the language and themes found in our traditional Siddur are challenging: prayers with triumphal themes, prayers that exclude women, prayers that portray God as angry or jealous, prayers about reinstating the sacrificial cult, for example. The body of our historic liturgy also lacks responses to many core problems of our day. That is changing as more and more individuals – rabbis, educators, poets – create and share new prayers and new rituals.

It’s instructive to ask if the struggle is with the Hebrew, the translation or the interpretation. The translations in the Koren and the Artscroll siddurs are much different. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s z”l daily Siddur maintains the traditional Hebrew but has a radically different translation. Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform Siddur, varies in both Hebrew and English from its predecessor, The Gates of Prayer.

We are blessed, in this day and age, to have a wide variety of choices. In liberal Jewish movements, we eliminate or replace language that is troublesome. Even in some modern Orthodox circles, the meaning and intention of some of that old language is taking on new interpretations.

Engaging with the traditional prayers – perhaps in study, perhaps in worship – has its rewards. Our yearnings as human beings and the ethos of the Jewish people are captured in the prayer book. It hasn’t stayed static over the centuries. It’s shifted, changed, grown. As a book – more precisely, as a set of books that has evolved over time and across locations – the Siddur captures the heart and history of Jewish people. It’s remarkably bold, innovative, provocative, sensitive and illuminating. Its evolution, which continues in all strands of Judaism, is fascinating.

JSG: You made aliyah three years ago. Was your move intended to support or enhance your prayer writing, and, if so, how?

A: My aliyah has, indeed, supported my writing, but that was not my intention. My intention was simply to build a new life. The gifts I’ve received have gone beyond what I could have imagined before coming here.

JSG: Your blog is titled “To Bend Light.” What message do you want to convey with that title?

A: The name of the blog came out of an email conversation with a friend. I was trying to make a distinction between prayer, blessing and the mystic’s attempt to commune with God. We had no common language, so I created a set of analogies to hint at the distinction I was trying to make. I wrote: “Light is a universal metaphor for Divine energy, a universal symbol for holiness, truth, radiance, love. To pray is to summon Divine light. To bless is to attempt to bend that light toward holy purpose, including consolation, healing, joy and peace. Communion is the attempt to enter that light.” With the blog title, I’m attempting to communicate that my site is a place of spiritual intent.

JSG: When you speak of summoning “Divine light,” are you speaking metaphorically or do you believe in some transcendent or imminent cosmic energy?

A: It’s a metaphor for a belief that gifts continue to flow from God into the world. It’s a metaphor for a belief that creation was more than a one-time act. God continues to create the universe – some might say God actively maintains the created world – which is classic Jewish theology reaffirmed in our prayers. It’s a metaphor for a belief that our prayers matter, that they make a difference.

JSG: Is the light of which you speak a natural phenomenon, or more a panentheistic force like Arthur Green discusses or perhaps more similar to Mordecai Kaplan’s trans-natural power? Or is it akin to an emergent consciousness recently discussed by David Nelson in The Emergence of God?

A: Light, as I’m using it here, is a metaphor for the sustained and ongoing flow of God’s creative energy into the world. It’s a metaphor for the belief that God continues to engage with the created universe. Here is one more definition of prayer, this one from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ introduction to the Koren siddur: “G-d’s blessings flow continuously, but unless we make ourselves into a vessel for them, they will flow elsewhere. Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.”

JSG: You also speak about blessing as a process of bending light. How does this bending occur? Is the energy being bent, like starlight is bent by gravity, or is the person expressing the blessing somehow transformed?

A: This is part of the same metaphor, describing a belief that we can direct our prayers to holy purpose. Light represents the flow of God’s continued blessings into the world. ‘Bending light’ is a way to describe what happens when we bless one another.

JSG: Does this Devine light have any independent will or does it exist to be summoned and bent?

A: In Man’s Quest for G-d, Heschel put it this way: “Great is the power of prayer. To worship is to expand the presence of G-d in the world. G-d is transcendent, but our worship makes Him immanent.” What Heschel says matches my own indescribable spiritual experience of the world. I have been in the presence of holiness; I have been in the presence of the divine. If I catch a glimpse, that is a gift.

JSG: Some argue that fundamentally prayer involves one of three attitudes: gratitude, wonder and petition. Do you agree?

A: Gratitude and wonder are attitudes. The associated actions are thanks and praise. Petition is an action. The associated attitude is hope, or perhaps desperation.

What you’re describing is a typology for categorizing prayers. There are many. Anne Lamott coined this: Help, Thanks, Wow. Her typology is consistent with the structure of the Jewish Amidah prayers, which are divided into shevach (praises), bakashot (requests) and hoda’ot (thanks). Here’s one Christian construct: Adoration, Confession, Supplication and Thanksgiving. This is one Catholic construct: Adoration, Expiation, Love, Petition and Thanksgiving. When I teach, I use this typology: Wow, Gimmie, Thanks and Oops. When we think about the Sh’ma, we need to add another category: ‘Creed.’

The core attitudes behind all types of prayer are love and faith.

JSG: Let’s look at some of your offerings. Many of your prayers are addressed to “Ancient One.” Are you speaking to the skygod of our ancestors?

A: When I use ‘Ancient One’ in a prayer I want to evoke the feeling of God as a deep well of understanding, the One whose wisdom spans beyond my ability to comprehend, the One who existed before the creation of time.

JSG: Then to whom or what are you speaking and what do you want to achieve by the use of that term?

A: Every name, title or description of God is an attempt to understand some facet of the incomprehensible. In my writing I use all sorts of names, titles and descriptions including: God, Adonai, Source, Rock, Creator, Maker, Shield, Consolation, Guide, Foundation, Holy One, Guardian, Ein Sof and Shechinah, for example. I never – never ever – use the terms like Lord, King or Ruler, for example.

JSG: Why don’t you just use the term “God”?

A: My prayer workshops typically include a discussion of our names for God. There are people who are uncomfortable addressing God with titles like Sovereign or Ancient One. Yet, put those titles in the context of a Yom Kippur prayer and the comfort level increases. More people are willing to use these titles in the context of atonement. There are those people who are uncomfortable with feminine or mystical names for God, like Shechinah. Yet, if you put those names in context of a healing prayer the comfort level increases. We seem to intuitively move to titles like Source, Well and Shechinah when praying from our vulnerability. For each individual prayer, I employ the names, titles and descriptions for God that seem most appropriate to the content and the mood of that prayer.

JSG: Do you think that using Ancient One is more or less appealing to the Nones who are a rapidly growing part of the Jewish population?

A: The Ancient One is also the Source is also the Shechinah is also the Shield, Consolation, Creator and Ein Sof and every other name, title or description of God. I’m not sure any of them appeal to people who are not religious.

Your attention to ‘Ancient One’ got me curious about my own work. I went back and checked my use of names for God in my work. Great exercise. Of my 550 prayers, 55 include ‘Ancient One’ as a description of God, but it’s almost always accompanied by one or more other names for God within the same prayer. Five of my prayers use ‘Ancient One’ as the only name or description God.

JSG: Do you believe that the Ancient One hears your prayers, and, if so, in what fashion?

A: God hears our prayers. This is a classic Jewish belief. Several of our prayers end, “Blessed are You Adonai, who hears prayer.”

JSG: What kind of response, if any, do you expect from Ancient One?

A: I don’t expect a response. I believe – I have faith – that prayers are heard, that prayers make a difference. I don’t need to experience a response, direct or indirect. Faith does not require an answer.

JSG: Well, if you do not expect Ancient One to respond, why not drop the reference to an addressee and just assert the value asserted in the prayer. For instance, why not just say something like “We fervently hope for peace and look forward to a time when all of humanity can live together with mutual respect” ?

A: We can recite poems for peace or sing songs about love and equality. I’ve done both. Songs are not prayers unless they somehow engage God, either in the language of the song or the intention of the one singing. Some of my own prayers do not mention God. No name. No title. No description. When I use them, I hold the intention of prayer. I hold the intention of communication with God. Others might read those prayers without that intention. Is it the same act? No.

JSG: Or, “Our ancestors appealed to Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, but we know that it is we who must strive to do godly work on earth.”

A: Doing God’s work on earth is beautiful. Repairing the world is done in partnership with God. We often pray for the willingness, courage and stamina to do that work. “God give me strength” is one of the most universal prayers.

JSG: In the introduction to a recent piece, titled Let God, you say that you want to let God into your life and move in the direction of holiness. What do you mean by that?

A: Holiness cannot be described or defined. Holiness must be experienced. Holiness is sighted. It can be sighted in the mundane, in the dirt, in acts of charity, in acts of kindness, in wrinkled hands and battered lives. It’s there, waiting to be seen, heard, touched. My hope and prayer is that I’m open and available to experience holiness in the world.

JSG: Do you think that holiness is achievable without reference to God?

A: Holiness itself is an emanation of God. Sometimes it’s a reflection of the godliness in us; sometimes it’s a reflection of Godself. Yes, holiness can be encountered without calling on God. Holiness cannot exist without God.

JSG: Similarly, in Praise for Healing, you speak of the energy of life flowing again into limbs, chest and heart. And you express thanks to “Source and Shelter” and “Healer and Guide” for having blessed you with days of joy and leading you back to “a life of wholeness and peace.” In what way do you envision the “Source” and “Healer” acting?

A: Your question comes down to this: How does prayer work? Let me tell you a story. My wife Ami z”l died of catastrophic brain damage as the result of a fall. At some point in the hospital, as we were waiting in her ICU room for her ultimate brain death to occur, one of my daughters said out loud that it bothered her to see all the blood in Ami’s flowing blond hair. Someone in hallway nearby must have overheard. A few minutes later, a nurse came into the room and washed Ami’s hair. A stranger came in to wash the hair of what was, essentially a dead woman, to ease our suffering. Were my daughter’s words a prayer? Was the nurse an answer? Was it just a coincidence? In that moment, each of us felt the presence of holiness. Something sacred transpired. We cannot describe it or duplicate it or even know on an empirical level if it happened. And it happened. Part of the power in prayer – the juice, the energy, the mojo – is in the mystery. Rabbi Sacks said that “prayer changes the world because it changes us.” I’ve had that experience, as well, but trying to understand how it works is an attempt to explain faith with reason. Reb Zalman put it this way: “We are asking the mind to understand that there are some things the mind cannot do. We cannot think our way to G-d. We cannot reach G-d by a safe step-by-step process.”

JSG: Could you have expressed the same gratitude, no doubt less poetically, but attributed the successful healing process to attending physicians, medical technology and pharmaceutical advances?

A: I’ve written prayers of gratitude for physicians, nurses and care givers, for example, prayers “For Medical Science” and “For Organ Donation.” These prayers praise the skills and the advancements achieved by medical professionals, thanking God for those gifts, asking that clinical skill be expanded and that advancements in medical science continue.

JSG: Over the last few years, how, if at all, has your understanding of the object of your words changed?

A: The object of my writing has not changed. My understanding and appreciation of the impact on myself and others has deepened. A few times each week I’ll hear from someone struggling with a difficult moment, or someone else who’s just experienced some joy or wonder, saying that a particular prayer I wrote provided the very words needed when they could not find their own.

I write prayers to fill voids in our liturgy. I write to give voice to our desires, hopes and yearnings. I write to strengthen my connection to God, to make myself a vessel for God’s blessings. I write to give others words they might not have. I write to inspire others to speak or write their own prayers, in their own words, with their own voices. I write as an act of personal healing. I write as an act of prayer.

JSG: How, if at all, has your writing style changed?

A: I use a variety of stylistic devices – call them poetic voices – to create mood in a prayer: the voice classic liturgist, the admonishing prophet, the seeking male, the spiritual traveler, the voice of prayer itself. Over time, these writing styles have emerged, deepened and changed. I’ve become more willing to blend those voices and to experiment with language.

When I moved to Israel I began a deeper study of Torah and classic liturgy, which has influenced the focus of some of my prayers, including incorporating Hebrew and references to text in some of my work. I continue to write prayers in response to natural disasters and man-made calamities.

I’ve also become more attune to writing both Jewish prayers – prayers that relate to Jewish theology, liturgy or holy days – and to writing prayers that can be used by people of all faiths, at times providing alternative language in the prayer.

JSG: Thanks, Alden. Good luck on your journey.

A: Thanks for your interest.

Roger Price <![CDATA[Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=619 2015-06-22T16:05:37Z 2015-06-22T16:05:37Z In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.” 

Speaking in 1961 (CE), Schneerson stated that “our world came into being 5721 years ago . . . .” (In mid-2015, that would correspond to the age of Earth being 5775, according to the traditional Jewish calendar count.) He recognized that it would be “impossible to cram within a period of 5722 years a process of evolution . . . which . . . would require  . . . billions of years.” (Emphasis in original.) But he disagreed with evolutionary cosmological theory and considered the traditional annual dating to be “historic” based on the language of the Torah which was reaffirmed by Halakhah, that is, traditional Jewish legal principles expressed in accepted writings like the Talmud. For Schneerson, the test of “the matter is Halachah. Where Halachah is concerned there can be no alternatives, for the rule of Halachah is the rule of reality.”

Such language tends to light the already short fuse of a group known as the New Atheists.  One of the more prominent members of this group is Richard Dawkins, a biologist and professor of science at Oxford University in England. Dawkins considers the kind of faith displayed by Rabbi Schneerson to be a great evil. “Faith is an evil,” he contends, “precisely becauseit requires no justification and brooks no argument.” (See The God Delusion (Mariner Books, 2008) at 347.) Worse, teaching children that “unquestioned faith is a virtue primes children  . . . to grow up unto potentially lethal weapons for future jihad or crusades.” (Id. at 347-48.)

Another New Atheist leader, Sam Harris, concedes that humankind cannot live by reason alone and acknowledges with favor “spiritual” and “mystical” experiences.  (See The End of Faith (W. W. Norton, 2004) at 43.) But he, like Dawkins, criticizes “faith,” defined as the kind of unreasoned life orientation toward “certain historical and metaphysical propositions” that has motivated many for millennia.  He compares this kind of faith not just to ignorance, but to mental illness and violent fanaticism. (See Id. at 64-65, 80-107, 131.)

Is there a third way, one less rigid and that disparages neither science nor faith?  Another approach, often articulated by “faithful” scientists, attempts to bridge the divide by arguing that science is, at its core, no different than faith.

The late physicist and astronomer  Charles Townes (1915-2015) won a Nobel prize in 1964 for his part in the development of lasers and subsequently was one of the discovers of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. He was also a devout Christian. Townes thought that religion and science were two methods which could be used to understand the universe and, moreover, were complimentary. More specifically, he claimed that faith is a part of science. He said that science has “postulates and we believe in them but can’t prove them.”

Paul Davies, another physicist and director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University, has made similar statements. In an essay first published in 2007 by The New York Times, Davies took aim at the conventional argument that science is seen as based on testable hypotheses, and asserted that science is based on faith. That is, according to Davies, “science has its own faith–based belief system.” “All science,” he wrote, “proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.”  Indeed, in Davies’ view, to be a scientist, “you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find . . . the speed of light changing by the hour.”

In Davies’ view, both religion science and religion rest “on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.” He says, “(c)learly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith . . . .”

This third approach is far from clear, however, and hardly satisfying. Indeed, the argument contains a least two fundamental flaws, one an overstated premise and the other a conclusion of false equivalence. First, the premise “all” science proceeds on an assumption of “ordered” nature, and that the ordering is “rational” is not at all obvious. The formulation smacks of intentional design and the presence of some controlling and sensible Orderer. It does not account for a universe that is replete with seemingly random acts, some of which are not so kind. Supernovae explode. Galaxies collide. Comets hit planets. Volcanoes explode.  Plagues spread. Genes mutate. Quantum events occur, by definition, unpredictably. In short, stuff happens far and near and there are real life consequences. Science may be able to explain specific events to a degree, even a significant degree, by reference to certain laws of physics, chemistry and biology, but explaining any such activity is not the same as determining it to be “rational” and “ordered.” Second, the conclusion that both religion and science rest on “faith” is based on a distortion of both the word “faith” and the essence of science, or, more precisely, the scientific method.

In response to an essay by Professor of Science and Society Daniel Sarewitz, one of Davies’ colleagues at ASU, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne dissected the argument that science and religion both rest on faith. Quoting Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann, Coyne defines religious faith as an “’intense, usually confident belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.’”  Instead, the belief rests on “revelation, authority, and scripture . . . .” By contrast, “scientists don’t have a quasi-religious faith in authorities, books, or propositions without empirical support.” They neither proceed based on a personal revelation nor swear allegiance to a creed.

Does science assume that nature is ordered, as Davies has suggested? No, says Coyne, but scientists have observed that there is regularity in the universe. Does science assume that reason will lead to truth? No, but scientists use reason because it’s a “tool that’s been shown to work. . . . it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!”  Does science have faith “that it’s good to know the truth?” No, Coyne continues, but scientists prefer to “know what’s right because what’s wrong usually doesn’t work.”

Consider two examples. The first deals with the relationship of the Sun and Earth. Some may believe that the Sun will “come up” tomorrow because God wills it. And Little Orphan Annie may tell us that we can bet our bottom dollar that “(t)he sun’ll come out tomorrow” because, well, she’s a cockeyed optimist. But science will tell us that unless the Sun stops burning its remaining multi-billion year supply of fuel or Earth’s orbit or axis is altered, the Sun will certainly appear to rise tomorrow in the East as it has each and every day for billions of years.

Now consider the difference between thinking that the first human was fully formed out of a lump of soil less than six thousand years ago and thinking that Homo sapiens emerged after billions of years of evolution? We weren’t around for either event, so how can we know which, if either, is factually true?  The sole support for the first proposition is a religious text thousands of years old. You can believe it or not, but you cannot interrogate the author of the text or read reports of any witnesses. There is, in short, no evidentiary support for the proposition.

Support for the second proposition rests not on an unverifiable text, but on a reasonably well established, if not fully complete, sequence of evolution evidenced both by bones and samples of deoxyribonucleic acid (“DNA”), a molecule that contains the “hereditary information in humans and almost all other organisms.” The stories told by the analyses of both corroborate each other and lead to confidence in the shared conclusion:  modern humans, Homo sapiens, did not emerge fully formed within the last six thousand years. Rather, our order of mammals, characterized by placentas, opposable thumbs and relatively large brains, begat a smaller family of ape like creatures, Hominidae, which have such distinguishing features as thirty-two teeth and extended parenting.  About seven million years ago, give or take, that family generated two branches. One led ultimately to chimpanzees and bonobos, the other to a group collectively called homonims. Perhaps five million more years passed until the emergence of the genus Homo. Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared about 200-300,000 years ago.   (See Coyne, Why Evolution is True (Penguin Books 2010) at 4, 8, 190-212.)

The process by which science attempts to determine truth is called the scientific method. It consists of a series of discrete, though interrelated, steps that loop back at one or more points so that the idea at issue is constantly refined and, if possible, falsified or verified. The process can be summarized as follows:

  1. Observe phenomenon
  2. Ask questions
  3. Develop a hypothesis
  4. Predict an outcome
  5. Test the hypothesis
  6. Gather data
  7. Evaluate results
  8. Falsify, modify or confirm hypothesis
  9. Share conclusions

Once we understand the nature of the scientific method, it is clear how different religion’s approach is to the resolution of perceived puzzles. Religion may begin with observations, but then its methodology departs from the scientific framework. Religion may, for instance, tell a story about how one person’s walking staff miraculously turned into a snake or generated sprouts, blossoms and fruit (see Ex. 7:10-12, Nos. 17:16-23), and you can choose to accept those stories as historical facts, unique and sacred, or as literary devices, but certainly the text contains no prediction that the outcomes would ever be the same if the incidents were repeated and no attempted replication is ever attempted.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and popular science communicator, likes to say, essentially, that “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It’s a great applause line. But it is not quite right, as he well knows. Science, even at its best, is not truth, but a process for attempting to find truth.

And, as Tyson also surely knows, the scientific method has its limits. Sometimes our tools and techniques are not sufficient or are not used correctly and rigorously enough to measure natural phenomena accurately or completely. The geocentric model of the universe advanced by Ptolemy appeared to work reasonably well for centuries to explain the movement of planets and stars, and even successfully to predict events like eclipses. But it was a flawed model, and ultimately replaced by the Copernican view, which itself was refined by, among others, Galileo who had a telescope, then Newton who utilized calculus and Einstein who applied the mathematics of relativity.  Then, too, sometimes scientific studies are not well designed or executed for financial or political reasons. The result is that many research findings are less reliable than they suggest. (See, e.g., here.) What this teaches us, however, is not that the scientific method is not to be trusted as much as that over time science tends to self-correct.

And to be fair, though Messrs. Dawkins and Harris and Coyne might not agree, religion can and sometimes does too. Judaism today is surely not the Judaism of the Temple periods, when the biblical stories were collected, redacted and canonized. Nor is it the Judaism of the Talmudic period, when oral conversations about a myriad of topics were reduced to writing and became precedential and even binding. Similarly, Judaism transitioned through its medieval and modern periods.

Today, some may still follow Rabbi Schneerson in his belief in the literal truth of the biblical creation story, but not all. Today most  understand that the story was not meant to assert a scientific truth as much as an allegorical one, that it was not meant to describe the origins of the cosmos as much as set the stage for a social and historical drama.

In short, Jewish thought has evolved from the biblical perspective on everything from the grand question of the origin of the universe to the less cosmic but very serious issues of abortion and same sex marriage.[See, e.g., here and here.)  And it has done so not by hierarchical decree, because for two thousand years Jews have not had a High Priest or an accepted religious governing structure. Rather, Jews have developed their Judaism organically and for the last several centuries in the context of a European Enlightenment in which science has been a dominant factor.

With some notable exceptions, Jews today, like British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, accept that science and religion both “seek to decode mysteries,” but do so with different techniques and for different purposes, that  they are “different intellectual enterprises,” one about “explanation” and the other about “interpretation.”  For them, the “Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science.”  (See Sacks, The Great Partnership (Schocken 2011), at 284-85.) Consequently, for the overwhelming majority of Jews there is no need to rationalize the non-rational or to engage in contortions to conflate ancient stories and modern science. (See, e.g., here, here and here.)

Nor is it necessary to engage in word tricks that define faith to encompass that which it does not. Rather, modern Jewish thought can respect both faith and science, even as it denies both that “religion holds a monopoly on virtue” and that science is the sole source of reality. (See Sacks, above, at 287, 289.)

Moreover, for Jews who respect and affirm science, Judaism today can be reality based. And reality based Judaism can be as vibrant and even more compelling than myth based, science rejecting Judaism.

But wait, Dawkins, Harris and Coyne might caution, what kind of god can there be in reality based Judaism? That would be a challenging question, but a fair one. Whatever the answer may be, it will not be a god who appears as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (See Ex. 13:21-22.)  Considering what kind of god might emerge, might be plausible, might be real, will have to await another day, however. That’s OK. Judaism teaches patience. (See, e.g., Prov. 14:29, and here.) For now, let’s be grateful for a little clarity on the nature of religious faith and scientific confidence.


Roger Price <![CDATA[Ginger Jews]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=604 2015-04-07T19:57:39Z 2015-04-07T19:57:39Z Last year, about two hundred red haired Israeli Jews gathered for a conference at Kibbutz Gezer in Israel. While that is a nice size group, there were, apparently, many hundreds who were interested in attending, but unable to do so. Those who attended the conference shared stories, sang a popular children’s song called “I am a Redhead,” and reportedly had a good time. Gezer, by the way, is Hebrew for carrot.

And then there is Stav Shaffir, the not even thirty year old Member of the Knesset whose hair is vibrant red. Stav, by the way, is Hebrew for Autumn.

There is even Hebrew slang for redheads: gingi (Jeenji) for a male and gingit (Jeenjit) for a female, both Hebraicized corruptions of the English ginger.

What’s with Jews and red hair?

The Jewish connection to red hair turns out to be quite complex. The first possible references to redheaded Jews appear, not surprisingly, in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. Two well-known personalities, Esau and David, are described as admoni, meaning red or ruddy. (See Gen. 25:25; 1 Sam. 16:12, 17:42.)

Some commentators leap quickly from admoni to red hair, but there is both more and less here than meets the eye. With respect to Esau, the text suggests that he was red and hairy all over, but admoni also serves as a pun for Edom, whose residents were said to be descendants of Esau. (See Gen. 36:9.). When used regarding David, the reference is even more obscure, and does not clearly involve hair. Rather, it is more suggestive of a ruddy complexion.

Even if the two references were to red hair, they provide no consistent signal or message or even information because the two men are viewed quite differently. David, the poet-warrior and king of united Israel, has been idealized, the founder of a royal dynasty that God promised to last forever. (See 2 Sam. 7:12-16; 1 Kings 9:4-7, 11:36, 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19.) By contrast Esau has been marginalized in the Hebrew Bible. Tricked by his younger twin brother Jacob, the patriarch to be, Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of red lentil stew, later married two Canaanite women and a daughter of Ishmael and is viewed as the progenitor of the Edomites. (See Gen. 25:30-34, 26:34, 28:9, 36:1-3, 9.)

In any event, these two instances of red hair, if that is what they are, seem isolated situations in the Tanakh, and not particularly indicative of anything worthy or special. To the contrary, black hair was view as normal, even idealized. (See Eccles. 11:10; Song of Songs 5:11.)

Of course, whether Esau and even David actually existed is open to question, and the description of hair as red may have been more a literary device than actual reporting. Or not. In 2000, Dr. James Tabor entered a recently broken entrance to a first century tri-level tomb south of Jerusalem. Inside he found not only skeletal remains of a Jewish male, but a preserved sample of his hair. And the color of the hair was “reddish.”  (For more, see here.) So the notion of red haired Jews during biblical times may not have been entirely fanciful.

Many centuries later, in English drama and literature, two Jews were portrayed with red hair and quite unfavorably. William Shakespeare’s Shylock was frequently costumed with red hair, really a fright wig, in productions of The Merchant of Venice. (See here, at 7/11.) Charles Dickens’ Fagin, the manipulative criminal in the novel Oliver Twist was adorned with natural red hair.

While the anti-Semitism prevalent in England during those times (at least) cannot be denied, one should be cautious about drawing a connection between the red hair and antipathy towards Jews. Shakespeare himself did not portray Shylock in unmitigated bad light. To the contrary, the bond story in which Shylock is prominent is of a piece with the two other principal themes in the play, the casket story and the ring story. In each and all, the playwright through his characters literally asks about form and substance, as well as uniqueness and commonality. So Shylock famously inquires, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”  And later, Portia, guised as a young lawyer, wonders “Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?” As the marvelous early twentieth century Shakespeare scholar Harrold C. Goddard observed, this ironical play is about “what is within and what is without” and we are often more like the other than we might wish to recognize. (See The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1, at 82 (Phoenix Books 1960).)

Nor is it clear or even likely that Shakespeare would have used red hair as a sign of malevolence. After all, when The Merchant of Venice was first mounted in 1596, the reigning monarch was Queen Elizabeth I. As the queen had red hair, there was nothing to be gained by antagonizing her.

Dickens’ treatment of Fagin was quite different. The original version of his novel, published in 1837, contained over 250 references to Fagin as “the Jew,” and Dickens did not mean it in a nice way. Nor did he temper his portrayal with humanistic utterances. Still, his selection of red hair for Fagin was not necessarily part of the seemingly anti-Semitic package. It surely could have been the literary equivalent of the fright wig associated with Shylock, but it may also or additionally have been meant to be one in a series of characteristics like old age, ugliness, criminality and suggested child predation that marked Fagin as an archetypal villain. That is, the hair choice could simply have been a conventional, accessible and easily understood “marker of low moral character, of fiery hot tempers, of violence, of suspiciousness.”  (See also, here.)

Jews have had their own post-biblical fictional redheads, too. In Yiddish folklore, di royte yidn were redheaded Jewish fighters who were strong, brave, independent warriors and could rescue their fellow Jews from whatever was the persecution of the day.

Esau and David, Shylock and Fagin, and di royte yidn, notwithstanding, red hair was and is not a predominant trait of Jews. Hair color, like other traits, is determined genetically, of course, and, in this instance, by the production and regulation of two pigments by the melanocortin 1 receptor (“MC1R”) gene found in chromosome 16. But MC1R is not like the Cohen Modal Haplotype that seems to allow certain male Jews to trace their lineage back 2,500 years to the Second Temple period. Nor is it found disproportionately among certain Jews as are certain BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations which are markers, or genetic signals, for early onset breast cancer.

The MC1R gene appears to be recessive. Typically, for an individual to be born with red hair, both parents must be carriers of an MC1R gene and the MC1R gene from both must combine in the fertilized egg. MC1R operates on two pigments, eumelanin and pheomelanin, and, in general, the more of the latter, the redder the hair. But MC1R is also quite variable, and may be subject to being influenced by modifiers. In fact, according to University of Delaware Professor John H. McDonald in “Red hair color: The myth,” the genetics of hair color is “complicated.”

While human hair color varies enormously, from the lightest blonde to the darkness black, red hair manifests itself only in about 1% of humans worldwide. (See here.) Individuals with red hair can be found around the globe, but the greatest concentrations are in Northern European populations, and in particular, in Scotland and Ireland where, respectively, 13% and 10% of the population are redheads. One theory is that genetic material for red hair was favored in such areas because it would allow for the production of Vitamin D in circumstances of low sunlight and ultra-violet radiation. The prevalence in the United States is 2%. (Id.)

Data on the prevalence of red hair in Jews is uneven and questionable. Hair color does seem to have been a topic of considerable interest at the end of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth. An article in the Jewish Encyclopedia published in 1906 contains several tables which collect various observations of hair color in Jews around the world. One table concerns Jewish school children in Central Europe (Austria, Bavaria, Germany and Hungary). While most of the children are indicated to have brown or black hair, approximately one quarter to one-third of these children are said to have blond hair. The incidence of red hair is less than 1%. A second table concerns hair color among Jews in selected countries throughout Europe. While dark hair again predominates, the frequency of red hair often appears to be 2% or higher, reaching more than 4% in Poland, Galicia and Russia. The information is of doubtful value, however. Among other problems, the size of the sample populations differs greatly from country to country and the method for selecting the individuals is unknown.

A somewhat similar review occurred in New York City, the results of which were published in 1903 by Maurice Fishberg, a physician and anthropologist, in the American Anthropologist. Fishberg’s paper was titled “Physical Anthropology of the Jews.”  With a sample size of almost 2300 Jews twenty years old and older, and reasonably split between males and females, Fishberg found that about 82% of Jews studied had dark hair, meaning black, brown or dark chestnut, while about 15% had fair hair, that is, light chestnut or blond, and about 3% had red hair. (Fishberg, at 92.) The precise percentage of male redheads was 2.53%, and the percentage for females was 3.69%. Fishberg characterized the percentage of red-haired Jews to be “high.” (At 97.) And he stated, without reference to any authority, that “erythrism [a prevalence of red pigmentation] has been regarded as characteristic of the European Jews.” (At 98.) Similarly, he contended that that the condition “appears not to be of recent origin,” referring to the biblical descriptions of Esau and David. (At 98.)

Fishberg also observed the color of beards on 587 Jews and found that 10.9% of them were red. From this, he concluded that “red hair is nearly three times as common in the beard as in the hair of the head.” His calculations are not clear. If the percentage of male redheads was 2.53%, then a 10.9% red beard observation would indicate that red beards are more than four times as common as red head hair. In any event, Fishberg characterized the frequency of red beards as “not at all surprising” because “any one who has observed Jews closely” would know that “the beard is quite frequently red . . . .” (At 99.)

What the percentage of red-headed Jews is today is not at all clear. What is clearer and more important is that Jews come in all shapes and all sizes and all shades, with different aptitudes, attitudes and orientations.  Whether Jews started as one wandering family that settled in Egypt, grew over time, and was forged into a nation in the wilderness, or, alternatively, emerged from Canaanite tribes, the Jewish People today is truly a mixed multitude. Jews are a multi-national, multi-racial people whose members are bound together in different ways and to different extents by an uneven mix of religion and culture, language and literature, history and choice, and, yes, genetic material too. For some, that genetic material includes the MC1R gene that may make for redheads.

Red hair is not, however, a marker of Jewishness. Red hair is neither restricted to Jews, nor is it predominant among them. Natural hair grows on Jews in many colors, maybe not as many as the colors on Joseph’s coat (see Gen. 37:3), but more than enough to dispel unwarranted stereotypes. Literary and artistic conventions aside, the incidence of red hair among Jews evidences that Jews are just like everyone else. As Shylock might say today, “Swab our cheeks. Do we not share the same chromosomes?” OK, that’s not as tightly, nor as sharply put as what Shylock said in his soliloquy, but the point is the same.

Ginger Jews remind us of how varied Jews are. Ironically, the most important thing about redheadedness in Jews may well be that it is really not that important at all.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller <![CDATA[Free Will vs. Deterministic Cause and Effect]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=599 2015-03-19T16:24:34Z 2015-03-19T16:24:34Z For over 3,000 years philosophers and religious thinkers have argued about free will. Some have argued that everything has a material cause that determines all material effects including emotions like fear, love and happiness. Others have argued that there are also subjective mental states like belief, morality and self-identity that influence individual’s reactions to an objective material stimulus.

Now it seems that science has discovered that even worms have free will. If offered a delicious smell, for example, a roundworm will usually stop its wandering to investigate the source, but sometimes it won’t. Just as with humans, the same stimulus does not always provoke the same response, even from the same individual.

New research at Rockefeller University, published online in Cell, offers a new neurological explanation for this variability, derived by studying a simple three-cell network within the roundworm brain. “We found that the collective state of the three neurons at the exact moment an odor arrives determines the likelihood that the worm will move toward the smell. So, in essence, what the worm is thinking about at the time determines how it responds,” says study author Cori Bargmann. “It goes to show that nervous systems aren’t passively waiting for signals from outside, they have their own internal patterns of activity that are as important as any external signal when it comes to generating a behavior.”

The researchers went a step deeper to tease out the dynamics within the network. By changing the activity of the neurons individually and in combination, they could pinpoint each neuron’s role in generating variability in both brain activity and the behavior associated with it. This is almost impossible to do for humans because the human brain has 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, or connections, among them.

But the brain of the microscopic roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, by comparison, has only 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses. So while the worm’s brain cannot replicate the complexity of the human brain, scientists can use it to address tricky neurological questions that would be nearly impossible to broach in our own brains.

Worms spend their time wandering, looking for decomposing matter to eat. And when they smell it, they usually stop making random turns and travel straight toward the source. This change in behavior is initially triggered by a sensory neuron that perceives the smell and feeds that information to the network the researchers studied.

As the worms pick up the alluring fruity smell of isoamyl alcohol, the neurons in the network transition into a low activity state that allows them to approach the odor. But sometimes the neurons remain highly active, and the worm continues to wander around — even though its sensory neuron has detected the odor.

Scaled up to account for the more nuanced behaviors of humans, the research may suggest ways in which our brains process competing motivations. “For humans, a hungry state might lead to you walk across the street to a delicious smelling restaurant.” However, if a person finds out that the wonderful smelling food in forbidden by his or her religious or moral commitments it may not be eaten. Thus, a mental state of belief offsets the biological cause and leads to a different behavioral outcome.

There is plenty of evidence suggesting network states have a similar impact on animals with much larger and more complex brains like humans. “In a mammalian nervous system, millions of neurons are active all the time. Traditionally, we think of them as acting individually, but that is changing. Our understanding has evolved toward seeing important functions in terms of collective activity states within the brain.” says Bargmann.

Or as Moses said over 3,200 years ago: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deut.30:19).

Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.  Earlier versions of this article may have appeared elsewhere.

The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.






Roger Price <![CDATA[Sagan, Stars and Grains of Sand]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=594 2015-02-23T20:19:37Z 2015-02-23T20:19:37Z Who could look at the stars and yawn? Certainly not astronomer Carl Sagan.  Sagan, a serious scientist, popularized a journey though the universe just over a third of a century ago with his award winning TV series, Cosmos. To impress upon his viewers how many stars existed, Sagan would enthusiastically assert that there were “billions and billions” of them, stressing and drawing out the first syllable each time.

As he acknowledged at the outset, however, the “size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding.” So, to try to make such an enormous quantity understandable, he said that “the total number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” (Watch here; see also, Sagan, Cosmos (Random House 1980) at 4, 196.) It was a wonderful reference.

We may sense that there are a lot of stars in the sky, but with the naked eye it is hard to pinpoint and count them, even or maybe especially on a clear night. Sand is somewhat different. We can take a fistful of it at a beach, survey the area, think about the coast lines of the various continents, and then factor in countless interior beaches. Sagan says that our hand will hold about 10,000 grains of sand. (Cosmos, at 196.) Without help, we may not be able to do the math or know the result of the equation, but we can understand that the beaches hold an enormous number of grains of sand.

What Sagan did not say is that his two subjects, stars and sand, were invoked long ago in the Hebrew Bible as metaphors for abundance. They appear first in the book of Genesis, each separately and once together.

In the very first instance, God is assuring Abram that although he is of advanced age and without heirs, he will, nevertheless, have many descendants. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  . . . So shall your offspring be.” (See Gen. 15:5.) Shortly later, we are told that Abram’s concubine Hagar has borne him a son, Ishmael, and not long after that Abram, now called Abraham, and his wife Sarah become the parents of Isaac. (See Gen. 16:1-16, 21:1-3.)

The second reference — the joint reference — follows Abraham’s test on the mountain where he goes with Isaac to present a burnt offering for God. According to the story, an angel of God calls to Abraham, stops the proceedings before the sacrifice of Isaac and relates God’s declaration: “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore . . . .” (See Gen. 22:17.)

The third mention in Genesis arises in the context of Jacob meeting with his estranged brother Esau after many years. Here Jacob expresses his fear that Esau may kill him and his family and prays that God remember his prior promise which Jacob casts as follows: “Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’” (See Gen. 32:4-13.)

Of course, the authors of these biblical passages were exercising poetic license to make a point, partly social, partly political, partly theological. Each had seen the evening sky dotted with distant lights. Even if they could see no more than a few thousand points, such lights must have seemed to be beyond measure. The authors may even have been familiar with the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea along the north coast of Egypt or the western areas of Canaan. The numbers of grains of sand would also surely have seemed limitless. So the authors and the final editors of the text made sure to stress that each of the three prime patriarchs of the Jewish People was present to witness a divine promise of fertility and demographic strength.

Not surprisingly, the metaphors had rhetorical legs, especially at times of great social stress, as can be seen in other biblical invocations.

  • The setting for Hosea’s prophecy — the dissolution of the Northern Kingdom of Israel due to internal corruption and external military forces — is among the earliest of preserved writings of its kind. After expressing God’s disenchantment with the House of Israel, Hosea consoled with a prediction that the people of Israel and of the Southern Kingdom of Judah would be reunited: “The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured and counted . . . .“ (See Hos. 2:1-2.)
  • The Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians around 722 BCE, and a number of northerners did migrate south. But a century plus afterwards, the Kingdom of Judah came under attack by the Babylonians. As he sat in prison contemplating the destruction of Judah, Jeremiah revived the ancient metaphors and conveyed God’s assurance that the kingship of David’s family and the centrality of the priests would continue. “Like the host of heaven which cannot be counted, and the sand of the sea which cannot be measured, so will I multiply the offspring of my servant David, and of the Levites who minister to Me.” (See Jer. 33:1, 22.)
  • Still later, writing in the name of Isaiah, but centuries following the original prophet of that name, a second Isaiah chastised now exiled Judahites but also promised them that they will, through the success of God’s servant Cyrus, be free. He urged them to return from Babylonia to Judea and heed God’s commands. If they did, said Deutero-Isaiah in God’s name, then “your prosperity would be like a river, your triumph like the waves of the sea. Your offspring would be as many as the sand, their issue as many as its grains.” (See Is. 48:18-19.)

These words, must have been encouraging, as well as comforting, to those who first heard and later read them, and understood their roots in the tales of the patriarchs.

The authors of the Hebrew Bible would have be shocked to learn that today there are about six million Jews in modern Israel.  To them, 6,000,000 would seem to fulfill the ancient promises. Imagine their surprise if they learned that there are almost six million more Jews in a place called the United States of America, across a sea even greater than the great sea with which they may have been somewhat familiar.   Add to those communities other Jews in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe and you have a world population of Jews totaling just under 14,000,000.

Perspective is important, however, and those 14,000,000 collectively do not exceed two-tenths of one per-cent of the planet’s more than 7,000,000,000 human inhabitants. Even if each and every person on Earth were Jewish, they still would not be as numerous as the stars in heaven or the grains of sand on the seashore.

The biblical authors did not know, and could not have known, how far their metaphor really reached. Nor could they reasonably have anticipated that even though those grains and stars are too numerous to count, there would  be efforts later to estimate the numbers involved.

Let’s start with sand. Conceptually, the problem is not too difficult, especially if you stick with the biblical formulation and exclude inland beaches. All you need to know is the volume of sand on the world’s coastal beaches and divide that number by the volume of an average grain of sand.

Sand particles, like the quartz grains that permeate the Mediterranean coast of Israel today, range between 0.05 and 2mm in diameter. For purposes of our calculation, a cubic millimeter of sand will serve as the volume of an average grain of sand.

The volume of sand on the world’s coastal beaches is a product of the length, width and depth of those beaches. The length of coasts can be determined reasonably well by modern technology, but not all coasts have beaches. Most estimates of the fraction of beach shore to coast range from about one-fifth to two-fifths. The length but especially the width of a beach varies throughout the day as tides ebb and flow. Naturally, the depth of the beach will then vary as well. One good effort to solve this problem was developed by physics professor Howard McAllister of the University of Hawaii, based on work done by Judaism and Science contributor Ludwik Kowalski. Prof. McAllister calculated the total length of the earth’s beach shores at around 50,000 kilometers (about 31,000 miles) and set the average width at 30 meters (just under 100 feet) and the average depth at 5 meters (just over 16 feet).

If you accept these parameters, then the number of grains of sand on the beaches of the seashores of the world total 7.5 x 1018, or 7.5 billion billion. Vary the coastal length, the percentage of beach shore, or the average width or the average depth and the estimated volume of sand will change. Of course, while this is educated conjecture, it is still conjecture. Another approach puts the number of grains at 5 billion billion, including those on inland beaches. Either way, the result is more than a few sextillion (a billion billion) grains of sand.

Calculating the number of stars in the sky presents different challenges than counting the grains of sand on the Earth’s seashores. Instead of having a reasonably fixed parameter with which to work, like the number of miles of seashore, the stars are set in a universe which is not only expanding, but expanding at an accelerated rate.

On the other hand, we are not concerned with the size of an average star, in the way we were with an average grain of sand. We will include the yellow stars like our Sun, but also all of the stars along the spectrum from red to blue, and even brown and white stars, too.  And we will include stars smaller than our Sun, the dwarfs and the neutron stars, and stars larger, the giants, and much larger, the supergiants.

The practical problem is that we can only include stars that we can see and we can only see a star if the radiation it emits, in the form of visible light or other electromagnetic waves, reaches our measuring devices. Even with NASA’s relatively new Hubble Space Telescope and the other, newer space observatories, our vision is limited to a discrete portion of the universe.

Moreover, some of what we do and do not detect presents a false picture. Our universe is about 13.7 billion years old. A few years ago, Hubble received light from a galaxy 13.2 billion light years way. We do not know, of course, and cannot know, if that star system has survived. We may be seeing stars that no longer exist. Conversely, stars are being born all the time. The light from some of these young stars may not have had time to reach us yet. If it takes 5 billion more years to get here, we will never see it as our Sun will die by then, and take us with it.

What we can say is that our Sun is one of over one hundred billion stars in its galaxy, the Milky Way. The star count is made by estimating the mass of the galaxy. Adjustments are then made to account for the fact that most of the stars in our galaxy are red dwarfs, each of which is smaller than one solar mass, the mass of our Sun. Some estimate the total number of stars in our galaxy to be 400 billion.

As Hubble and other observatories probe deeper and deeper into space, they see farther and farther back in time. Astronomers now believe that there may be 100 to 500 billion galaxies in the known universe. The majority of these galaxies, including the Andromeda galaxy located only 2.5 light years  (15 trillion miles) from us, are shaped in a spiral like the Milky Way. But not all are. Some, like the much more distant M13 galaxy found in the constellation Hercules, are rounder and are known as globular clusters. The most massive galaxies, the largest known one of which is the IC 1101, may be flat or round but are more elliptical.

Similarly, the number of stars may vary greatly from galaxy to galaxy. For instance, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Andromeda may contain a trillion stars. It is far from the largest galaxy, however. IC 1101, a billion light years away, may hold a hundred trillion stars. Conversely, dwarf galaxy may hold just one to ten million stars. Consequently, a reasonable range of the possible number of stars in the known universe is quite large and extends from 10 billion billion to 200 billion billion.

Even at the low end of the estimated range, the number of stars seems to exceed the number of sands of grain on the seashores of the Earth, and the inland beaches, too. (For a different set of numbers, but with the same relative results, see here.) So Carl Sagan was right.

Now some folks may conclude from all of this that the Hebrew Bible has been proven, once again, to be a faulty guide. The reported promise from God that the number of descendants of the Jewish patriarchs would exceed the number of stars in heaven or grains of sand on the seashore has not come true. Moreover, science through Sagan and others has shown definitively that the promise will never be fulfilled.

The literalists would be literally correct, of course.  But, as they often do, they miss the greater messages of biblical literature. First, the recorders of the patriarchal legends and the prophets cited above were not seeking to make a scientific point, or a mathematical statement about demography. They were, rather, expressing their faith in their social and political future. They were asserting, even as Americans echoed a similar assertion over two millennia later, a mixture of confidence and hope in a doctrine of manifest destiny, a conviction that the descendants of Abraham, as a people and a nation, had a mission to fulfill and would, in time, fulfill it. The belief was surely related to a belief in God, but it was grounded in quite natural human concerns and desires.

Second, in focusing on the number of stars or grains, the literalists would, to mix the metaphor, miss the forest for the trees. The biblical authors were not concerned with tallying the precise number of stars or grains. They did not care whether the sums were in the millions or billions or, as it turns out, the sextillions. Indeed, they had no concept of such numbers. What they thought, and correctly so at the time and to a considerable degree even today, was that the numbers were so huge as to be uncountable.  And they were expressing their awe at the wonder of it all.

Here Sagan and the authors of biblical authors are on the same page. For all of his disdain at the mythology of religion, and especially in instances which he saw as the intrusion of religion on the turf of science, in 1990 Sagan joined in an open letter which acknowledged: “As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe.” Five years later, and just one year before he died, Sagan contended that “science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” Summarizing Sagan’s approach to the sacred, Dartmouth religion professor Nancy Frankenberry has written that he was “utterly imbued with  . . . a marvelous sense of belonging to a planet, a galaxy, a cosmos that inspires devotion as much as discovery.” (See Frankenberry, The Faith of Scientists (Princeton 2008), at 222-24.)

So we should not be surprised to learn that Sagan, like the author of the second creation story in Genesis, addressed the same, age old questions asking who we are, where we came from (and when) and what our place is in the universe.   That biblical author described the first human as being fashioned out of the dust of the ground. In the Hebrew text, the connection of humanity to the soil is made starkly clear by the use of a pun: “ha-adam” (the human) is formed from “ha-adamah” (the ground). (See Gen. 2:7.)

What that author did not realize was that the dust of the Earth was stardust, forged in the furnaces of untold stars, spewed into space, moved along with intersteller winds and, ultimately, bound together on our home planet. Sagan, with such knowledge, wrote that humankind is “the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness.”  We are, he said, “starstuff pondering stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering he evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”  (See Cosmos, above, at 345.)

The late poet Aaron Zeitlin once wrote:

Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.

Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.

Praise Me or curse Me, and I will know that you love Me.  . . .

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,

If you sit entrenched in, “I couldn’t care less,” says God,

If you look at the stars and yawn, . . .

Then I created you in vain, says God.

Both Carl Sagan and the authors of the Hebrew Bible would ask the same question: How can you look at the stars and yawn?


Roger Price <![CDATA[Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai? (Part II)]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=581 2015-01-04T22:35:07Z 2015-01-04T20:45:01Z The idea that 3300 years ago, at Sinai, God gave Moses a Torah identical to the Torah we have today is a powerful concept, one that still resonates. But is it probable, even plausible?

Previously, to explore this idea, we have taken the text of the Torah as we have it today and looked at issues of content, language and script. We have already found that the Torah we have not only makes no claim as to its original content, but that internal evidence from the Tanakh strongly suggests that whatever Moses may have written and conveyed at the end of his life was limited in scope. Moreover, external evidence from archeological and other sources indicates that Moses’s sefer haTorah was not written in either the language or the script that a contemporary Torah is. In this post, we look at the transmission of a presumed original Torah, focusing on security for the object and textual variations.

Securing the transmission of the originally inscribed text

Let’s start with the medium of Moses’s inscription of the sefer haTorah that our Torah says Moses wrote just before he died (see Deut. 31:9, 24-26) and the security afforded the resulting work. Our Torah does not say precisely whether Moses chiseled the words into stone, wrote them with a stylus in wet clay or used a quill on parchment or papyrus.  If the entire Torah as we know it was inscribed on stone or clay tablets, there must have been many of them to include almost 80,000 words containing over 300,000 letters. If one or more scrolls were used, the material involved must have been sizable as well. In any event, it is certainly hard to imagine the 120 year old Moses chiseling, pressing or writing that much text as he was about to die. 

Professor Rachel Dulin has noted that the word sefer is used in the Hebrew Bible over 185 times and with meanings that change depending on the context of the usage, but that include “letter” and “legal document.” While the material on which Moses wrote was not bound on a side edge like the books of our day, as the binding of paper into books did not begin much before the beginning of the Common Era, the word sefer seems more suggestive of writing on parchment, or similar material, than it is of chiseling in stone or impressing in clay. In other words, sefer haTorah here appears to indicate a scroll.

That conclusion is buttressed by a consideration of how the sefer haTorah was to be handled for the journey into Canaan. Our Torah states that Moses directed the Levites to take the sefer haTorah and place it by the Ark of the Covenant, there to remain as a witness. (See Deut. 31:26.)  Later commentators speculated about this placement.  Each assumed that the item consisted of a single scroll. Under Rabbi Judah’s theory, that scroll was placed near the outside wall of the Ark on a shelf or ledge projecting from and attached to the Ark, while Rabbi Meir thought that it was placed inside the Ark between the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and the inner wall of the Ark. (See Talmud Bava Batra 14b.) Both explanations are problematical and even the great commentator Rashi had difficulty with them. For present purposes, though, the main point is the general consensus among early rabbis that the sefer haTorah was a scroll. Contemporary biblical scholar Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman agrees and translates sefer haTorah as a “scroll of instruction” in his translation of the Torah. (See Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (Harper 2001), at 664.)

Whether the sefer haTorah was, in fact, a scroll or not, its subsequent history is quite mysterious. As the Hebrew Bible relates, after Moses’s death, the Ark, with the scroll presumably either inside or on a protruding ledge, was taken on a long and difficult journey. Taking the story as true for present purposes, over the course of over two hundred years, the Ark was, among other things, carried across the Jordan River, paraded around Jericho, set in a tabernacle in Shiloh, brought into the field during battles with the Philistines, captured by the Philistines and taken to various cities, returned to the Israelites, moved by King David to a private house and later put in a tabernacle and, then, placed by King Solomon in the Temple in Jerusalem. There is no further mention of the Ark in the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible, except for a report in Chronicles that several hundred years after Solomon, King Josiah ordered the Levites to place the Ark back in the Temple. (See 2 Chron. 35:1-3.)This report is not corroborated by any similar statement in the story of Josiah as told in 2 Kings, but if given credence certainly raises the question of when the Ark had been removed from the Temple and where it was in the interim.

In any event, biblical history as related in Kings (and Chronicles) is rather clear in its description of what the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar took as his army destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem around  586 BCE.  The Hebrew Bible relates that the Babylonians carried off valuables that they did not otherwise destroy or burn. (See 2 Kings 24:8-13, 2 Chron. 36:18-19.) There is, however, no specific mention of the Ark being confiscated. Nor is there any claim or even hint expressed that the royal family or any priest or anyone either took with them into exile or hid or otherwise protected or preserved the safer haTorah that was, at Moses’s direction, to be located by the side of the Ark. This does not mean that those transported to Babylon did not take any documents or records, merely that a specific ancient treasure was not specified in the national record, as one might have expected it to be had the object actually been (1) extant and (2) moved.

Is it reasonable to believe that throughout all this time, almost seven hundred years, a scroll exposed to the enemy in battle and to the elements in peace could have survived intact? Given its importance as a sacred writing by Moses himself, the fact that the historical sections of the Hebrew Bible after the Book of Joshua, with one exception, do not mention the sefer haTorah is telling. And that exception, the story of King Josiah’s surprise at a newly discovered scroll by the priest Hilkiah, seems to confirm at the very least that control over and protection of sacred scrolls was not well managed. (See 2 Kings 22:3-20.)

Further, as an object, the existence of the scroll on which Moses wrote God’s words seems to have been of no concern to the authors of the Prophets (the Nevi’im) and the Writings (the K’tuvim), not to mention the editors of the Tanakh. The sounds of silence here, as Sherlock Holmes later observed in the short story “Silver Blaze,” may well be evidentiary.

Versions and changes from transcription

Given the many problems inherent in the claim of an unsullied transmission of the sefer haTorah  authored by Moses, we should not be surprised to learn from Hebrew Bible scholar Professor Marc Zvi Brettler that in the Second Temple period (c 538 BCE – 70 CE) there were a number of versions of the Torah extant. (See Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford 2007) at 22.) The evidence comes, in part, in the form of pre-Common Era texts like the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Greek Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls, among others, which contain different wording than we find in the Torah we have today.

Rabbi Gil Student argues that, for various reasons, these other documents are not indisputable proof, or even good witnesses, against the assumption that the “text that is agreed upon by the Jewish community – the textus receptus  that is claimed to be the Masoretic text – is correct.” (SeeOn the Text of the Torah,” at 1/21.) Student is certainly persuasive when discussing a translation like the Septuagint. (See Id. at 7-13/21.) The philosophy, principles and methodology at play in any translation can be quite complex. For instance, did the first translation attempt to be true to the literal nature of the subject text word by word. Did it seek to convey the meaning of that text thought by thought? Did it seek to balance those two approaches? Did it seek to mimic the sound and cadence of the original language or to appeal to certain linguistic or philosophical sensibilities of the readers by using, for instance, colloquial or gender neutral expressions? And was the first translation consistent? The same questions, and more, would apply to any effort to translate the first translation back independently in order to determine an original text. In short, reverse engineering a translated text compounds the inherent complexity of the translation exercise.

Rabbi Student is on considerably less solid ground with variants, like the Samaritan Pentateuch. (See Id., at 2-3/21.) By one count, the Samaritan Pentateuch contains not only over 3,000 differences in spelling when compared to a contemporary Torah, it also contains over 3,000 words and phrases which clarify or change the meaning of the story found in current text.

Sometimes the changes are small, but even those small changes can be important, as when dialogue is added in the Samaritan version of the familiar story of Cain and Abel. The story in Genesis reports that Cain said something to Abel before they went into a field where Cain killed Abel, but it does not disclose what Cain said. (See Gen. 4:8.) The Samaritan version supplies dialog, which indicates that Cain enticed his brother to accompany him and, therefore, supports a determination that Cain’s murder of his brother was premeditated.

Then, too, sometimes the changes are substantial. For example, the Samaritan text, in addition to the well-known Ten Commandments, includes an additional commandment to establish an altar on Mt. Gerizim.

Student acknowledges the obvious, which is that there are “many differences” between the Samaritan Torah and the textus receptus we have, but concludes that these differences “can be due to the free hand the Samaritan scribes exhibited in developing their Torah.” Consequently, for him, “the Samaritan Torah fails our test of being a reliable witness.” (See Student, above, at 2/21.)

The differences, however, individually and collectively, are more probative than Rabbi Student allows. In his argument, Student concedes that he is departing from the approach of modern scholars and admits that he is assuming that today’s standard text, his textus receptus, is “correct,” unless “categorically disproven” otherwise. (See Id. at 1/21.) But giving something a Latin label does not make it sacrosanct, and placing a thumb on the scale of evidence imposes a burden of proof that will always skew the analysis and never lead to an accurate reading of that evidence. Why, for instance, assert that Samaritan scribes “developed” their holy text with a “free hand” and not allow for the possibility that Judahite scribes did so similarly?

If we want to evaluate the totality of circumstances objectively, as opposed to proving a point, we cannot proceed under any, much less unwarranted, assumptions. More specifically, given what we know today, “we cannot,” according to Prof. Brettler, “assume that the text . . . as we now have it is the same as the text . . . when it was originally written.” (See Brettler, above, at 22.)

In addition, if there were, once, one text written by Moses, or even one redacted by Ezra, surely that text was modified over the centuries. As another Hebrew Bible scholar Emeritus Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay has discussed, albeit in the context of his analysis of Bible codes from a textual perspective, the ideal of an unchanged Torah text “was not achieved in practice as far back as manuscripts and other evidence enable us to see.” (See Textual Perspective, at 5/27.)

According to Prof. Tigay, the “manual copying of texts naturally created variants . . . .” (Id. at 6/27.) In addition, other changes to ancient texts involved the spelling system for those texts, including, specifically, the use or non-use of vowels. Tigay has looked at the limestone tablet known as the Gezer Calendar, discussed here, and noted that the letters which were inscribed on the tablet only represented consonants.  At some time in or after the tenth century BCE, Hebrew began to use a limited number of consonants as vowels. The current system of marks placed above and below letters to indicate vowels was not adopted until sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries of the Common Era. (See Textual Perspective, above, at 5-6, 19-20/27.)

Scholars today can trace the changes in biblical manuscripts through the ages.  They can identify the sources available and used by different scribes, as well as the editorial choices they made. They can see how a particular manuscript once considered to be definitive was corrected later and supplanted. This was true prior to the advent of machine printing in the fifteenth century of the Common Era and also true after. (See generally, Pentkower, “The Development of the Masoretic Text,” in Jewish Study Bible (Oxford 2004), at 2077-84.)

The end result of this textual history is inconsistency in the manuscripts we have and use today. Contemporary Hebrew Bibles are based primarily on thousand year old manuscripts known as the Aleppo Codex (c. 930 CE) and the Leningrad Codex (c. 1010 CE), the latter being the oldest complete Tanakh existing today. Both are part of the Masoretic Text tradition, but agreement among modern works is still lacking. For instance, the well regarded Koren Jerusalem Bible, first published in 1962, is based on the Leningrad Codex, but the text of the Torah contained in it has forty-five (45) more letters than does the Michigan-Claremont Westminster computerized text of the Leningrad codex which is used by most scholars. (See Tigay, above, at 5, 19/27.) Similarly, a text provided to Israeli soldiers is also based on the Leningrad Codex, but reportedly it, too, contains spellings different than those in the Koren. (See “A List of Some Problematic Issues,” at 2-5/68.)

The illusive nature of the original Torah has not deterred researchers from seeking to find it. Currently, for instance, there are at least two academic efforts aimed at producing a scholarly edition of the Tanakh, one known as the Hebrew University Bible Project and the other as the Hebrew Bible Critical Edition  Project, formerly known as the Oxford Bible Project. Yet, even as one may anxiously wait to read of new developments, perhaps Prof. Brettler is correct in concluding that “(i)t is naïve to believe that we may recover the Bible’s original text (what scholars call the ‘Urtext’), namely the text as penned by its original authors. “ (See Brettler, above, at 22.)


The traditional claim that the Torah we have today is identical to a text authored in the thirteenth century BCE strains credulity. Regardless of whether the author was divine or human, for the traditional view to be valid, not one but a series of improbable events would have had to occur in the creation and multiple transmissions of that text over well more than one hundred generations.  The evidence, internal in the Tanakh and external on hard stone and clay and soft manuscripts, says those events did not occur. Analyzing the content, language, script, security and transcription of a proposed original Torah demonstrates why such a document, if it ever existed, must have been different, perhaps considerably so, from the Torah we have today.

There is no reason to stress or strain over either the evidence or the result of our inquiry. The Torah we have might not have come from Moses, and certainly it has not arrived unimpaired from some original manuscript, but it remains a very special document, one that holds appeal to a wide variety of individuals.

Implicitly conceding the lack of historicity for an original thirteenth century BCE Torah from Moses, at least for the purpose of making a greater point, philosophy Prof. Samuel Fleischacker, himself Orthodox, has argued that what is important is the authority rather than the authorship of the Torah, whether the Torah “represents a supremely good (“divine’) way for us to live . . . .” It is an interesting and significant argument, one that (perhaps ironically) parallels positions taken by less ritually observant individuals.

Putting aside the problematic issue of “authority,” we can agree that the Torah plays and deserves a unique role in the Jewish civilization. Those who appreciate miracles (whether supernatural or not) can marvel at the Torah’s continued existence and power. We still have it, and we continue to read and study and even wrestle with it. And atheists like Israeli writer Amoz Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Sulzberger also can recognize that honor is due the Torah as literature that “transcends scientific dissection and devotional reading.” In their words, “no other work of literature so effectively carved a legal codex, so convincingly laid out a social ethic.” (See Jews and Words (Yale 2012), at 5-6.)

With its depth, its breadth and its reach, the Torah may well have been intended initially as a vehicle to hold and share the sometimes inconsistent stories, codes and customs of the residents of ancient Judah, perhaps before but certainly after their exile from and return to their homeland. In this light, its role was to bind the people together with a common created history and collective purpose.  The Torah that we have today serves a similar function, as trans-national, trans-generational glue for the Jewish People. Against all historical odds, it remains, in words from Proverbs, an etz hayim, a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. (See Proverbs 3:18.)

Roger Price <![CDATA[Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai?]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=578 2014-12-18T18:23:49Z 2014-12-18T18:23:49Z The Torah is the foundational text of the Jewish People. Initially, it asserts a pre-history and a purpose of the ancient Judahite kingdom to which contemporary Jews trace their emotional and often actual genetic origin, setting forth the kingdom’s legends and lore, its poetry and prose, its customs and commitments.

But the Torah is more than the purported history contained in it. When its contents were reduced to writing, text trumped tradition as the source of both political and religious authority in the Judahite world. (See generally, Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge 2004) at 91-117.)The result initiated nothing less than a textual revolution.

Moreover, in the words of Israeli writer Amoz Oz and his daughter historian Fania Oz-Sulzberger, a “lineage of literacy” followed.  (See Jews and Words (Yale 2012) at 15.) Transmitted over millennia and eliciting commentary which itself then begot more commentary, the written Torah has bound and continues to bind the Jewish People together over space and across time as they read it, study it, participate in its interpretation and organic growth and act out its lessons. Here, the Torah has served, and continues to serve, as trans-national and trans-generational glue.

Jewish tradition ascribes the highest honor to the Torah. Honoring one’s father and mother, performing deeds of kindness, and making peace between one man and another are all deserving of the greatest reward, but, according to the ancient sages, “the study of the Torah is equal to all of them.” (Mishnah, Pe’ah 1:1.) Why? In part because the tradition sees Torah as the word of God, and that teaching has been transmitted intact to the present day.

The traditional view has been that the Israelites left Egypt in the Spring of the year 2448 (After Creation), which corresponds to 1312 BCE. The Talmud relates that Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and then gave it over to Joshua.  Joshua gave it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. (See Pirkei Avot.) The latter were understood as a group of 120 prophets and sages who, during the Second Temple period beginning in the fourth century BCE were the final religious authority for the reconstituted Jewish community in Judea.

The notion that contemporary Jews are the inheritors of this transmitted Torah is still expressed widely today. Take a look at a siddur (prayerbook) in any Orthodox, Conservative or Reform (though not Reconstructionist) congregation and turn to the conclusion of the service for the reading of the Torah. At the conclusion of the service, the Torah is lifted and the community joins in reciting the words “V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi YHVH b’yad Moshe,” that is, “This is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites, from God’s mouth through Moses’s hand.”

Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student not only defends this position, but expands upon it in an essay titled On the Text of the Torah.  Based on passages in the Torah and commentary in the Talmud, Student argues that when God dictated the Torah to Moses, Moses wrote thirteen copies of the text, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, plus one which was maintained and safeguarded by the priests and ultimately deposited in the First Temple. Student concedes that what happened to the priests’ copy is not clear, but that after the exiled Judahites in Persia were allowed by Cyrus (c. 538 BCE) to return to Judea in the sixth century BCE, they found three Torah scrolls. Ultimately led by the priest and scribe Ezra (c. 458 BCE), where there were differences in the wording, they reconciled the texts by majority vote of the scrolls. The resulting text was then protected by the priests of the Second Temple. (See “On the Text,” above, at 4-6/21.)

Of course, the premise of Student’s argument – that God dictated the entire Torah to Moses – is a claim that the Torah itself does not make explicitly, as Rabbi Daniel Gordis has recognized in his discussion of revelation in the Conservative movement’s edition of the Torah text.  (See Etz Hayim (Rabbinical Assembly 2001), at 1394.) Moreover, even if the Torah did make a claim of divine authorship, the problem inherent in a text (self-)serving as its own prooftext is obvious.

Nor are references to statements of Talmudic sages necessarily persuasive to any except those predisposed to accept their authority.  The statement at the beginning of Pirke Avot upon which Rabbi Student builds his case was written not by eye witnesses but well over a millennia after the original purported transmission and, further, by men who, however well meaning, had an interest in presenting themselves as the primary interpreters and adjudicators of Jewish law and practice.

A Talmudic debate not referenced by Rabbi Student is, however, instructive. Considering what God gave Moses and when, one rabbi stated that the entire Torah as we know it was given scroll by scroll. Another claimed that it was disclosed in its entirety. Yet another thought that certain passages were revealed before others, as needed. (See Talmud Gittin 60 a-b.) The rabbis, of course, were trying to fill the gaps in the sparse Torah text.  Ironically, and no doubt unintentionally, this debate underscores the lack of certainty about what God gave Moses and when.

In addition, recent archeological investigations and new understandings of literature from the Levant strongly suggest (1) that a key story in the text, the exodus from Egypt, did not occur as represented and (2) that some other smaller details are anachronisms which demonstrate that the Torah could not have been written at the turn into the thirteenth century BCE. Thus, the traditional view that a single author, whether directed or inspired, wrote the entire Torah text at that time is undermined by different but consistent streams of evidence which agree that the Torah we have today was written and edited much later and over a number of centuries by several individuals or schools. (For more, see, e.g., The Camel’s Nose and Let my People Know.)

Nevertheless, the idea that the Torah we possess today, what Rabbi Student calls the textus receptus, is identical to that given by God to Moses is a powerful one, and, as evidenced by its promotion by Rabbi Student and its acceptance in contemporary prayer texts and elsewhere, persists to this day.  So let’s revisit the claim, this time taking the contents and physical nature of the Torah we have today as we find them and ask how, if at all, the received text compares to the presumed original Torah text that Moses may have written over three millennia ago. As we proceed, we are faced, analytically, with at least five issues which must be addressed: contents, language, script, security and transmission. This essay will cover the first three. Security and transmission will be discussed subsequently.

The contents of Moses’s sefer haTorah

The only mention of sacred writings in our Torah, other than the two sets of tablets on which God and Moses respectively wrote, occurs at the end of Deuteronomy when the story relates that Moses, then one hundred and twenty years old and impaired, wrote down “haTorah.” (See Deut. 31:2, 9, 24.) The term Torah could mean “law,” but is better understood here as “teaching” or “instruction.” (See Jewish Study Bible (Oxford 1985) at 2.) Moses then gave the “sefer haTorah,” to the Levitical priests, who were in charge of the Ark of the Covenant. (See Deut. 31:26.) The contents of the sefer haTorah are not expressly delineated.

Other passages surrounding Moses’s inscription and conveyance may provide a clue, though. In anticipation of crossing over the Jordan into Canaan, Moses had directed the people previously to erect large stones after their passage and to write on them all the words of “haTorah.” (See Deut. 27:3-8.) Subsequently, Joshua reportedly wrote on stones a copy of the “Torat” (sic) that Moses had written. (See Josh. 8:32.) Joshua then read all the words of “haTorah,” the blessing and the curse, as written in the “sefer haTorah.” (See Josh. 8:34.)

What could Joshua have written? Consider the logistics. If two tablets could hold only ten commandments (see Ex. 20:1-14, 31:18), how many would be necessary to contain all 613 in the Torah we have today, plus the many stories and genealogies? In addition, today a trained scribe requires about a year to write a Torah on parchment. An effort to chisel an entire modern Torah on stone would require even more time. But time was not available as neighboring kings were preparing to attack the invading Israelites. (See Josh. 9:1-2.) All this suggests that the “sefer haTorah” Joshua chiseled was limited in scope, perhaps to the terms of another covenant that we find in Deut. 27:11-28:68. And that, in turn, suggests the same for what Moses may have written in the sefer haTorah he handed to the priests. But we simply cannot know for sure.

The language and the script of Moses’s Torah

If we are unsure about the words Moses wrote, what do we know about the language and script he used? The language of the Torah we have is predominantly Hebrew, with some Aramaic phrases included. It is not contemporary Hebrew, however. Rather, most of the language of our Torah is what scholars call Biblical Hebrew, or Classical Biblical Hebrew. Whether Moses and the biblical Israelites actually spoke Hebrew of any sort is, however, doubtful.

According to the biblical story, Moses’s writing came at the end of a forty year journey which followed over two hundred years of life in Egypt for the descendants of the patriarch Jacob, much of which was spent in slavery. (See The Chumash (The Stone Ed. – Mesorah (1993)), at 359 n.40.)Taking the story as true for present purposes, what was the likely language Moses used while writing his sefer haTorah? Again, the text we have today is conspicuously silent on the subject, but one fact and one assumption relate to this issue.

First, whatever language Jacob and his immediate family may have spoken, there is no evidence that during the time tradition ascribes to Jacob’s life (c. 1653-1506 BCE) that language was Hebrew, as opposed to, for instance, a Canaanite dialect of the time. Second, given the American experience with both slaves and immigrants, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that when Jacob’s family arrived in Egypt under the protection of Jacob’s son, Joseph, who was acting as Governor of Egypt, the family began to learn the language used by their Egyptian hosts.  Further, when Jacob’s descendants became enslaved, it is similarly reasonable to assume that they used the language of their overseers. Of course, it is possible that the descendants of Jacob were isolated sufficiently from the Egyptian population so that they could have maintained their original language, whatever it was, but that is just more speculation. The question remains: if Moses intended that the recently freed Israelites understand the words he wrote, did he write it in the language of Egypt or in some other tongue?

Intimately related to the question of the language Moses used is the issue of the script he wrote. As might be expected, the rabbis in the Talmudic period speculated about the script used in the original Torah. And, as might be expected, they disagreed.

The possibilities, for these rabbis, involved two types of lettering and the dispute was about which was used and when. The two candidates, both West Semitic scripts, were Ivri and Ashuri.  Ivri, or Paleo-Hebrew, script was an offshoot of Phoenician.  Ashuri originated in Aramean kingdoms, evolved, was promoted by the Assyrians, and ultimately became a precursor to the square Hebrew lettering in use today.

One of the rabbis, Rav Elazar HaModal, contended that the script was always Ashuri.  Another, either Mar Zutra or Mar Ukva, opined that the original lettering was Ivri, but that in the time of Ezra it changed to Ashuri. A third argued that it was originally in Ashuri, later changed to Ivri and then reverted to Ashuri once again. (See Talmud Sanhedrin 21b and 22a.)

The factual bases, if any, for the rabbis’ opinions are unknown. What is known is that they did not have the benefit of recently developed information. What modern archeology and studies of near eastern literature, linguistics and lettering teach us is that the Assyrians encouraged the use of their chosen script in the second half of the eighth century BCE. (See History of Hebrew Aleph-Bet, at 4-5/27.) But that was over five hundred years after Moses reportedly wrote the sefer haTorah.

So what script might he have used? To try to answer that question we have to go back in time, initially to the mid-ninth century BCE and start with the Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite Stone. Discovered in the last half of the nineteenth century CE, in what is present day Jordan, the Mesha Stele is a basalt slab about a meter tall which contains one of the earliest and clearest examples of writing with some Hebrew characteristics. The stele describes the exploits of King Mesha of Moab, who is also discussed in the Hebrew Bible. (See 2 Kings 3:4-27.) The script here displays no evidence of square letters, however, and would be unrecognizable to any Hebrew school or even rabbinic student. It more resembles Phoenician writing of the same period. Some would characterize the letters as Paleo-Hebrew.

An older inscription, being a record of agricultural events, was found in 1908 in the old biblical city of Gezer, located between Jerusalem and what is now Tel Aviv. Known as the Gezer Calendar, this 11 by 7 centimeter limestone tablet dates to about 925 BCE, the time of the Biblical King Solomon. The script is Canaanite. The structure of the letters is nothing like that of contemporary Hebrew.

Apparently older still is a fragment of a storage jar, discovered in Jerusalem in 2012 at the southern wall of the Temple Mount. The wall in which the fragment was found has been tentatively dated to the tenth century BCE.  The fragment itself contains writing in a Proto-Canaanite script which has been dated to the eleventh or tenth century BCE.

From these three bits of evidence, we can draw two tentative conclusions. First, the script used by Moses could not have been Ashuri as Ashuri was not invented until centuries after the Exodus date. Second, even two to three hundred years after the Exodus date, the script used in Canaan was barely, if at all, recognizable as Hebrew. Presumably, therefore, whatever script Moses may have used must have been even further removed from yet unborn Hebrew and closer to the then current script used in Egypt or in international commerce at the beginning of the thirteenth century BCE.

A prime example of the kind of lettering which might have been used can be seen in the El-Amara Tablets, a collection of almost 400 clay tablets first discovered in 1887 in Amara, located between Cairo and Luxor in Egypt. The messages are mostly from kings in communities throughout the Middle East and are dated to 1350-1300 BCE, the traditional time calculated for the Exodus.

Despite the location of their discovery, however, the El-Amara tablets were not written in Egyptian, but in Akkadian infused with various Canaanite dialects. The script was not Egyptian hieroglyphics, but cuneiform wedges. The quantity and origins of these tablets suggest that there was at the time, at least for commercial purposes, a language and a script that was commonly used not only in Egypt and Canaan, but also northeast to Assyria and east to Babylon. If not in the hieroglyphics of their despised Egyptian task masters, and not in as yet uninvented square lettered Hebrew, might Moses have written the sefer haTorah in something like the cuneiform found in the El-Amara Tablets?

In short, even a basic review of the circumstances and evidence related to the content, language and script of Moses’s sefer haTorah casts doubt on the statement that our Torah today is identical to anything that Moses may have written.  We will consider the issues of security and transmission of the sefer haTorah in the near future.